Copyright and Society

A friend contacted me today, asking some interesting questions about the term of copyright – that is, the length of time that legal copyright can be maintained. I think the resulting conversation is worth sharing more widely.

Hey Costa,

I was reading this very interesting posting on Badass Digest today:

In the comments, I came across this exchange:
_ _ _ _ _ _

SS: At some point we need to have a larger discussion about when art that has been released to the wild belongs to society as a whole. Current copyright law is way too long.

SS: I just think current culture and technology is moving too fast to have lifetime plus 50. Even the first copyright laws that were ever enacted back England were something like only like seven years to encourage more creation, not having just one idea.

JH: If they want to own the thing they made forever, why can’t they?

SS: Why can’t they? Because if artists and scientists never allowed their creations to belong to the whole we’d never progress as a society.
_ _ _ _ _ _

Was interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

My first response:

It’s interesting that proponents of little or no copyright tend to fall into the following groups:

1. Not creators or artists
2. Emerging or young artists
3. Failed artists
4. Amateurs (I.e they do it for fun)

5. Academics (they have no professional stake in the outcome)

So, what I’d like to say first up is that I don’t think arguments from such people are very compelling. I’d much rather listen to people who are “in the game”, as it were. People for whom decisions about copyright and IP actually matter.

My view is that 50 years is a reasonable term for copyright.

The “speed of technology” is completely irrelevant.

What we re talking about is a person’s original creation, and their ability to protect their right to get a benefit from their creation.

Beyond 50 years is not so reasonable. I don’t agree with the current regime in the USA, 75 years, and beyond in some cases.

However, to play Devils Advocate, how exactly does it benefit mankind and culture to have unrestricted access to Mickey Mouse?

Most if not all beneficial ideas, art, technologies have come to us in a copyright environment. There has never been a more enlightened and progressive period in history. In practice, I don’t believe the ‘common good’ argument stacks up at all. In fact, the opposite, if the ‘Herd’ can instantly access everything anyone can think of, this would have a deleterious effect on anyone’s ability to build sustainable businesses. What kind of economy would that give us?

An unconstrained wasteland, ruled by a few powerful monopolistic players, with all the rest left to breed in the cracks – smart but feral operators sparking up quickly, and burning out even more rapidly; with an audience of randomly motivated consumers roving from one transient thrill to another, chasing a promise of eternal fulfilment, all the while denying the certainty of their emptiness.

Oh, wait a minute. That’s not a prediction. It’s a description of the internet right now.

Anyway, to get back to the point …


The comment about the first copyright terms being only 7 years shows the authors bias and historical ignorance. If you care to research the abuses that were going on which led to copyright laws you’ll see why those laws were needed, and why 7 years was quickly deemed to be manifestly inadequate. The laws weren’t enacted to encourage creation, they were for the protection of clever people from stupid greedy ones. Nothing has changed.

You know, the world is full of people who resent the fact that some other people can do things they cannot. They are surrounded now by technologies which can give them the illusion of achievement via sampling, and mixing. It gives them the illusion of ownership via procurement of digital copies.

The fact this is illegal, morally wrong, and hurts genuinely creative people is a matter of profound inconvenience to all these millions of dullards who wish to practice their onanistic mediocrity without fear of reproach.

The message of the anti-copyright crowd is very simple really. Boil away all the bullshit, and we inevitably arrive at this:

“You make it. I’ll take it. Someone else can pay.”

This is not right. It’s not fair. And its not even sensible. It shows a profound ignorance of human nature, and the lessons of history.

A picture of where we might be headed in a lawless world that disrespects copyright, and disrespects creative people does not have to be imagined. It’s with us right now, and every day it will get worse unless we start acting to stop it. All it takes is a simple acknowledgment that stealing, copying, sharing of other peoples work without permission or compensation is illegal and morally wrong. Accept that personally, and the rest is simple.


Thanks for the speedy reply Costa. I agree completely with everything you have said. I just think that the pirates have a completely alien way of thinking and maybe there is just no way of coming to common understanding with them. Although, it seems to me they do not wish to come to a common understanding, just their own understanding.

CB. I think so. It’s a form of psychosis. Or religion. Or both.

I was interested in the the lifetime plus 50 (or 75) years aspect. I don’t quite understand this:

“… if artists and scientists never allowed their creations to belong to the whole we’d never progress as a society”

Lets take the Mickey Mouse example. Lets say that Mickey Mouse is of great benefit to the progression of society. Do we need to own Mickey Mouse as a society in order to see that benefit? Can’t we just learn from his many films and other pieces of art?

CB: Well, yes. If Walt Disney had been ripped off straight away, as happens now, Mickey Mouse would have been a brief online fad. The ownership of Mickey Mouse is actually a big part of its cultural identity, and relationship to society as a whole. If we all owned it, then its impact and longevity would be akin to a dance craze by Psy.

Does its copyright need to lapse in order for society to benefit?

CB: Eventually, yes, but certainly not for a long period of time. I think there can be a natural progression from private ownership to public. But I would submit that the collected works of Charles Dickens reached their potential thanks to the fact they were initially protected by copyright. Copyright didn’t stop anyone reading the books. They were available very cheaply.

I’m a little confused here. Why can’t the Disney estate own Mickey Mouse forever? Is it because paying for any sort of art after a certain amount of time will be detrimental to society? I must be missing something, especially as you think that the current 75 years is unreasonable.

CB. There has to be a balance between private and public good. People will always argue about where that line is drawn. Most artists tend to agree that the average lifetime of an individual is about right for a copyright term. Estates and corporations tend to disagree and demand longer. The corporate lobby in the USA has pushed for and got much longer terms.

It seems reasonable in some ways – as a corporation, Disney’s fortunes rest entirely on copyright. And yes, that is ironic considering most of their properties are adaptations of non copyright stories. So that brings us back to considering some reasonable compromise of how long a term should be. 50 years seems about right to me.

Once again, a very impressive discussion of the issue. I feel it is so hard to be hardline about pirated films as so many people I know do it and see no harm in it.

CB. Of course they do, but they just don’t want to admit it, because pirating is so easy and convenient, and there is no effective social sanction.

I have chosen in my own advocacy to speak mainly about the ‘harm’ aspect – by personal example. This has been inspired by experience, but also by seeing a worldwide trend emerging where artists are choosing to speak out.

JUst because the harm is not easily quantifiable does not make it imaginary. All artists – but especially musicians, film makers, and authors – are materially harmed by permissionless copying. Now we are sharing our stories, it makes it harder to ignore or pretend that illegal file sharing is harmless.

I always speak up about it, but feel like everyone in the room ends up thinking I’m a dinosaur or something.

You’re not a dinosaur. You are a moral human being with an appreciation of right and wrong.

You have also chosen to create work that you have willingly shared online for free. So you have engaged with current technology. No dinosaur.

But the deeper point is this.

Nobody has STOPPED you sharing YOUR work online. No system of copyright has prevented you sharing your art with humanity. It remains your choice.

Now imagine that you have – on the back of attention gained by your ‘free stuff’ – raised the money to produce a film. You put everything into it. And you hope that somehow you can earn an income from that film so you can advance a professional career as a film maker.

So you’re gonna have to sell it – tickets in theatres, DVDs, online video on demand.

And this is somehow a crime against humanity?

Tolstoy wanted to give his books away. His publisher didn’t. It is up to the author to decide. Not the author’s readers.

Nobody. Not even Tolstoy is going to have any kind of professional career in a non-copyright world, because as we have seen, when pirates strike, when file sharers get interested, most of the value of your work evaporates.

Enough people have tried it now for us to finally understand, crowdfunding, and asking for donations, DOES NOT WORK. If its free, it’s worthless. If its worthless, nothing gets built, nothing is established.

People who want to share their own stuff, they are free to do it. Why are they complaining?

Because, they don’t want to share. They want to take.

As a result, people who want to sell their work and make a living are under siege by moochers, malcontents and thieves.

And lots of sharp operators keen to make a quick buck trafficking in stolen goods and calling it “innovation.”, or “permissionless innovation”.

“Permissionless innovation” is theft. If something is not yours, and you take it – that’s theft. This is not such a hard concept to grasp.

But apparently, it is very hard to understand for people caught up in the Orwellian ‘doublethink’ of Digital Utopianism.

I suggest researching every historical attempt there has ever been at creating utopia on earth. Not many success stories there. What works is the Golden Rule – “do unto others …”. If something is not fair, then no amount of intellectual masturbation will make it right.

See also this post:

About Costa Botes

I'm a freelance film maker based in Wellington, New Zealand. I make mainly long form independent documentaries about characters I find interesting.
This entry was posted in Copyright and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.